“I just went on a police chase in an unmarked cop car,” says Nathan Hewitt as he walks through the door of his local Dalston boozer. “We went through a light and up through an estate and then they were like, 'Oh sorry, false alarm.' I was like, 'Ah, I thought we were going to get these punks.' It was like The Wire!”
If you’re planning on hanging out in east London, it’s best not to walk around with your eyes glued to a screen. The latest trend in mugging is quick and painless and involves kids on bikes swiping phones in one fluid swoop and riding off into the sunset. This is what happened to Hewitt on his way to meet me. After spending half an hour of alone time with his songwriting cohort James Wignall, Hewitt joins us. Once the buzz of riding in a cop car has died away, he looks bummed out, and it’s not because he hasn’t recovered his phone. “The kid who grabbed it must have been 12 or 13,” he says. “If he’s doing that now, he’s not going to school, his life’s fucked. That’s the sad part of it. I’ll just get a new phone—spoiled brat right? And he has to steal one.”
Muggings aside, 2012 has been an eventful year for this international, yet London-based, quartet, made up of Hewitt, representing Morinville, Canada; Wignall, hailing from Leicester, England; drummer Marc Raue from Dresden, Germany; and San Diego-born bassist Dean Reid, who’s played keys for Lana Del Rey and percussion for Lykke Li. With Reid at the helm of recording and mixing, Cheatahs released their first EP Coared back in June, played a bunch more shows, signed to Wichita—a dream come true— and returned recently with their second EP, Sans. But it’s been a long time coming: Wignall and Hewitt met eight years ago bonding over My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr. and Seinfeld while working at a Camden watering hole. True to their early days, Cheatahs’ songs are of a distinctly ’90s persuasion, combining meaty distortion, chiming guitars and gently layered melodies, with shades of Slowdive, Pavement and yes, Dinosaur Jr.
Check out their video for “The Swan” and read my interview below.
Nathan, you spent a long time as a touring guitarist for Male Bonding. How did that experience inform what you’re doing now? HEWITT: That was my first real touring experience. I learned a lot about logistics and moods and just dealing with your own moods too. It reaffirmed that this was what I really wanted to do. Afterwards I was like, we have to play these Cheatahs recordings fucking loud and fucking raucous—that’s just the most fun way to make music. WIGNALL: My favorite bands of all time are Dinosaur Jr. and Bad Brains, and they just made me realize it’s important to have the most fun onstage and go all out.
Do you find it funny that kids who were barely alive in the ’90s are in bands and all their influences are the same as yours? WIGNALL: The thing is you mythologize stuff that was before you were born. It becomes something else. So Kurt Cobain is obviously a god to a lot of people, but if he died before you were even born, well then, he’s the fucking messiah. He’s like Brian Jones or Janis Joplin. HEWITT: I’m teaching guitar to these kids right now and they’re like 11 and [it’s those ’90s bands] that get them into playing music.
How are your students? HEWITT: They’re great. I teach from the ages of six to 50. One student, it was so hard to get him to practice and then he got into Nirvana and got an electric guitar and he’s learning songs on his own and talking to me like he knows what he’s talking about, and he kind of does! It’s like, what, when did you get all this information?
Do you feel like you’re now part of a sort of creative scene in east London, do you thrive off it? HEWITT: Yeah definitely. I remember moving here at the beginning and not knowing many people and feeling really alone in what we were doing. You move here with a backpack and a naïve dream and you have to pay rent and you don’t have that infrastructure that you would have had if I’d been in a band from Morinville. Also the way general music tastes have changed to favor the kind of stuff that we like. In 2005, it was all The Libertines and that scene and playing shows with bands like that was kind of weird. It was harder back then, and now it’s really fun, because all those people who probably found it harder back then too have also found their feet.
Who would you say are your peers? WIGNALL: Male Bonding, Mazes, Cold Pumas, Colours, Sauna Youth, Omi Palone. A lot of the bullshit has disappeared from the scene. I think it’s because people have realized that to be in a band is really fucking hard and to make it work you really have to sacrifice a lot. And if you’re just doing this to get laid there’s a lot of things you could do that’s way easier.
How old were you when you started your first band. HEWITT: Nine. My first song was called the “Angel of Love.” I have a recording of it somewhere. It was like a heavy ballad with this weird rap and it was all Christian lyrics. I used to go to church all the time. I got to work the church PA—it got me out of Sunday school! I would go and sit at the back and try and get the best sound I could so that whoever had the mic had great sound but it would just end up in feedback. WIGNALL: My family’s very religious as well. I think growing up with that experience definitely makes you feel a kinship with other people who have shared something similar, because when you kick against that it’s so profound, you’re taking on a whole new belief system. Everything you’ve held to be true just disappears.
Did you kick against it? WIGNALL: I did. I’m quite pragmatic these days but I used to get quite angry. Now I can step out of it and be like, this is bullshit. Organized religion: it’s not good for anyone. It’s weird because then you have to reconcile your beliefs with your parents because now they’re completely different and it’s a completely different world… this is getting a bit deep. HEWITT: When I got out of it I was like—oh everyone who hasn’t been brought up like that is like three steps ahead of me. They’ve been able to see things maybe a bit clearer as opposed to coming out of a cloud of all this stuff. But then that’s not true at all. There are things that growing up like that made you into a nicer person. WIGNALL: I respect my parents a lot and they instilled me with good values, but you just find a way of accepting that you have a different view on things and you try and avoid touchy subjects. Now we just have a respectful disdain for each other’s views. Phew! I need another drink. So how much do I owe you for this hour? Haha!